March 5: Rare visitor at Palmer Station

The crew at Palmer Station receives a rare visit from royalty as a large adult male Emperor penguin appears in the station’s “backyard.”

Blog post by VIMS graduate student Lori Price

Our days here on station have fallen into a routine—sampling when the weather is good, then sample processing, lab work, and data entry when the weather doesn’t allow us to get out on the Zodiacs.

Changes in our routine, such as the recent crevassing adventure, are a welcome treat and we had another nice surprise yesterday. I woke up yesterday morning and went to the galley for breakfast, ready for a day of monotonous lab work. I checked the white board on the wall, something we all do regularly as it contains pertinent information for people on station and is the most efficient way to spread news quickly. To my surprise, a large note on the white board said “Royal visitor to Palmer Station: Emperor Penguin in the backyard!” (Watch the video.)

Emperor Penguin
Emperor penguin near the glacier behind Palmer Station. The scar on his back is thought to be a healed wound from some kind of attack. Photo by Brian Nelson.

Maggie, one of the scientists on station, had been out in the backyard checking on some of her equipment when she had come across the large bird.

I quickly ate breakfast and prepared for the trek out to the backyard, the rocky area directly behind the buildings on station. We hiked to where the penguin had last been seen and sure enough, he was standing right there in the same spot. It was an incredible sight!

We saw an Emperor penguin last year a couple of hundred meters away from the ship during the cruise down near Charcot Island. But this bird was about 10 feet from us and very easy for even a non-birder to identify.

I asked Marc, one of the birders, if the penguin was lost because Emperors are usually not seen around here. He said that the closest breeding population of Emperors that he is aware of is on the other side of the Antarctic Peninsula. But, from what they’ve seen this year, penguins can travel much farther than he ever thought possible.

The birders have been tracking Adélie penguins with satellite tags, mainly to study their foraging patterns around Palmer Station. However, this year some of the penguins left the area before the birders could remove their tags, which is good and bad. Good because they were able to track several of the penguins that traveled down the Peninsula several hundred kilometers in a matter of days (pretty amazing if you think about it); but bad because they lost several very expensive satellite tags.

Marc isn’t aware of anyone tracking Emperor penguins, but if Adélie penguins are any indication of the traveling ability of penguins, then if the Emperor penguin is off track it might only be off of its course by a few days. In other words, if he is lost he’ll probably be fine and find his way soon, and he certainly didn’t look nervous from what I could tell. He seemed pretty content to stand by himself in the rocks behind station. Apparently he’s still there today, so we’ll see how long he sticks around. If it makes him feel any better, he brought some excitement to our little community.

Author: David Malmquist

David Malmquist is the Director of Communications at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary.